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Conversations with America: Paine's Revolution

Updated on April 25, 2011

Keeping It Honest

I like the feisty ones: Abbie Hoffman, Simone Weil, John Adams, Jean-Paul Marat, and, of course, Thomas Paine. These voices from the fringe, impassioned and, sometimes, a little cracked, would not all make effective government leaders. Many of them were completely unfit for such positions, and frightening when they got near them. However, they summon us to conscience, and this means, more than any twaddle about shame and guilt, that they make us think through what we are doing and why we are doing it.

When this republic was born, responsibility was limited to a very few white male property owners, but the franchise expanded, and with that expansion every man and woman able to vote was given the duty to help, with voice and with deed, the ongoing American project. Paradoxically, this duty may place us at times in opposition to the authorities that claim our allegiance. We may in the exercise of our intelligence, our reason, our faith in the principles of this nation, (thankfully different today than they were in the days of the Founders), discover wrongs that must be put right, that demand our attention and will not let us go. If we do, let us act as the loyal opposition, recognizing that our political opponents share in our human frailty and that, in very few cases, are they fundamentally evil, merely mistaken, perhaps frightened, but still members of our republic, of our nation.

When dialogue becomes impossible, democratic government too is impossible. When we cease to listen and to speak to one another, we enter the world of faction, choosing the dictator, whether it is an individual or a group, we are willing to have as our oppressor and our limit.

The leaders of the Revolution made themselves into gentleman. Thomas Paine, too, re-made himself, but not into a gentleman, and for this he was rejected and defamed. When he died, the author of Common Sense, The Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reasonreceived no public eulogy from the great men who had recognized his service to the revolutionary cause, the power of his language and the ferocity of his belief in humanity. Gordon Wood writes: "Most who had known him were embarrassed by the connection and wanted only to forget him. His papers were scattered, and memory of him was allowed to fade"1.

Paine was dangerous and disregarded because he was not a gentleman. When he came to America with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin in 1774, the thirty-seven year old former staymaker and excise man was a twice married bankrupt.2 Within two years, he was the leading popular voice of Revolution in America, with the publication ofCommon Sense in January of 1776. This was followed in December byAmerican Crisis. Common Sense, a simple pamphlet, sold at least 150,000 copies. Paine was now a famous man, and Franklin's daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, wrote, 'the most rational thing he could have done would have been to die the instant he had finished hisCommon Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit". Many would have been more comfortable if Paine had achieved this rational end.

Paine, the man, was forgotten, but not the ideas to which he gave voice, though these thoughts were not his alone, but were part of the age. The ideas of this age to some extent are yet with us. In reading Paine it is easy to imagine his words coming from the lips of a modern politician or pundit: "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness"3. Unfortunately, other words, not his own, stuck to Paine and made him undesirable: atheist, anarchist. He was not an atheist, but his religion wanted no conquests; he thought God served by any number of sects, systems and beliefs, and the manner of one's relationship to God, or lack of relationship, a question for the individual conscience alone. It was an opinion, that held as an individual without monarchical designs on rule of others, could do no real harm and did not need prevention.

Paine did not confine himself to America alone. "A Share in two revolutions is living to some purpose," he told Washington in October 17894. The ideas of the revolution were not for Thomas Paine of local relevance, but universal truths that once embraced by others would better the world. He imagined a world of republics, tied by commerce and free of the wars brought by monarchical ambitions and the self-interest of standing armies. The ideas of the revolution were not conveniences of a moment for Thomas Paine, and he did not settle back into the business of running his plantation or pursuing his hobbies after the revolution was over. He remained the world's gadfly, a social critic whose audience was not gentlemen, but common men and women, familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible, but little else. Charged with sedition in England in 1792 over the publication of The Rights of Man, it was his audience that brought English authorities to prefer the charge; if he had written for gentlemen of sobriety, men well-schooled enough to receive coolly, as toys not realities, the ideas and demands in that volume, he would have been left alone5.

Paine came to America unmoored from society, carrying only a letter from Franklin. He had no family, no real patron, no connection of gratitude or dependence to fix him in the social hierarchy of his day. He was free, and unpredictable. He was not bound to any country, any particular community. In the eighteenth century, this was not enviable, it was disconcerting. It made the man criminal, though he had committed no crime. Even in America, he was under suspicion, looked upon warily. In 1779, he wrote, admittedly in a mood of bitterness, that "it was neither the place nor the people but the Cause itself that irresistibly engaged me in its support and for it I should have acted the same part in any other country could the same circumstances have arisen there which happened here"6. Paine turned his liability, his solitude and lack of connections to the resident hierarchy or any other hierarchy, into proof of his virtue, his supreme disinterestedness, a sort of monk of liberty, serving it wherever it struggled to arise.

Wood describes Paine as "a man out of joint with his time", but I do not think this is true. The fact that he was able to communicate so well the aspirations, needs, and ideas of the revolution to men who were not invited to understand it, indicates he was wholly of his time. However, he was not on the side of restraint. He could see beyond the steps the American Revolution had made in establishing freedom, to still further reaches, more necessary reforms. The Founding Fathers believed they led a revolution to the benefit of the people and later formed a government for the people; Paine brought it to the people and made them, in the tavern and at the journeyman's bench, its possessors.


  1. Wood, Gordon S.Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founding Fathers Different. Penguin Group Inc., 2007. p. 206
  2. Paine's first wife died in childbirth and the child as well. His second wife and he separated soon after their marriage, which was likely not consummated. Wood, p. 207-212.
  3. Common Sense(1776),The Thomas Paine Reader, Penguin Books, 1987. p.66
  4. Wood, p. 217
  5. Wood, p. 219-20
  6. qtd. Wood, p. 217


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